Part 1: Othello IS a “Perfect” Tragic Hero
In life, heroes will arise whenever they are called for. It may be the everyday heroes that are seen rescuing a cat from a tree or helping an old lady cross the street. It may also be the heroes that are seen in movies and books rescuing the princess from the dragon or leading their country in battle. Perhaps the rarest hero is the tragic one.
William Shakespeare has artfully crafted some of the most prominent tragic heroes of all time. With one of the greatest being Othello. Othello is a tragic hero because of his noble traits, his tragic flaws, and his tragic downfall.
For someone to be a tragic hero, they must first be a noble character. Othello can be considered a noble character because he is one of high social ranking and he has a genuine heart. Othello, despite coming from a rough past, is an honorable war hero and the general of the Venetian army.
Along with his social stature, Othello also has a noble heart. Although he is sometimes portrayed as violent, Othello’s loving nature can be seen in instances such as when he speaks about Desdemona.
These traits are greatly admired among characters of Othello including Iago who admits that Othello is “of a constant loving, noble nature [and] will prove to Desdemona A most dear husband” (2.1.290-292). Othello’s nobility is quite evident, however, he does have traits that can be viewed as tragic flaws.
Othello is a tragic hero because of his tragic flaw. There are many undesirable traits in Othello, like his jealousy and gullibility. However, the core of these problems and his main tragic flaw is his insecurities. Othello is the only black character and an outsider in Venice brings upon many insecurities.
His vulnerability makes him an easy target for Iago to manipulate his mind; he begins to believe that he isn’t good enough for Desdemona: “She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief Must be to loathe her.
Oh, curse of marriage That we can call these delicate creatures ours And not their appetites!” (3.3.283-286). Iago was easily able to convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful. However, Othello doesn’t realize his insecurities have taken over his life until it is too late and his tragic downfall has already hit rock bottom.
What makes Othello a tragic hero is he experiences a tragic downfall. Othello’s downfall is set into motion when the jealous Iago begins planting seeds of doubt into Othello’s already insecure mind. Iago’s manipulative words convince Othello that his wife is unfaithful; from then on he begins to lose his noble traits.
He treats his wife with little to no respect and eventually smothers her to death. When Iago’s plot is finally unveiled and Othello realizes his terrible mistake, it is evident he has reached his emotional limit: “Whip me, ye devils, From the possession of this heavenly sight! Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulfur, Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!—Oh, Desdemona! Desdemona! dead! Oh! Oh!” (5.2.286-290).
In his distraught state of mind and with his broken heart, Othello decides to kill himself. With one fatal stab, this hero’s tale comes to a tragic end.
Othello is a tragic hero because he is noble, he suffers from a fatal tragic flaw and he goes through a tragic downfall. All these traits that Othello exhibits lead him to be known as one of the most well-known tragic heroes in all of literature.
Part 2: Othello is NOT a “Perfect” Tragic Hero
A tragic hero is the noble, virtuous protagonist in a tragedy who has a single fatal flaw that ultimately leads to their downfall. If we separate this definition into a list of characteristics and plot requirements typically seen in tragic heroes and their stories, we can determine the answer to the titular question.
To help us determine how the character is feeling and acting, with minimal stage directions, we can use the patterns in dialogue that Shakespeare uses at different points to convey a character’s mental state. These literary techniques allow us to determine which character has Othello’s trust or love at any given point in the play, and therefore, we can track his journey to destruction, and determine to what extent Othello can be considered the perfect tragic hero.
The language and dialogue in Othello show us the characteristics of the characters and the relationships between them. Othello’s speeches when talking about Desdemona, or his military career, are very poetic, showing what his two priorities are at the moment.
The idiom Othello uses is dignified, measured blank verse, matching the dignified and peaceful character that he starts off as. Desdemona also uses that idiom, emphasizing their love at the beginning of the play. Othello speaks clearly and purposefully and we’re made aware that he’s an impressive and powerful character.
The imagery Othello uses also showcases his character: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them,” conveys the peaceful, yet military nature that is characteristic of him in the opening few acts.
The first characteristic typically seen in tragic heroes is that they begin their story as respected, noble people. In the first few acts of the play, we see Othello as someone who possesses extraordinary talents, intellect, and attributes. He has a loving wife, wealth and social connections, and celebrated military accomplishments, which have gotten him to the highest rank in the army.
Whilst certain characters in the play resort to racial slurs, most people we meet respect him. The first act of the play sees Othello in a high-ranking social sphere, a well-respected man who is, for the most part, good. At this point, we can see that Othello begins as a noble character, thereby meeting the first requirement to qualify as a tragic hero.
Iago is an eloquent speaker who uses words to subtly manipulate many characters throughout the play. When Iago manipulates Othello, he uses his judge of character to take advantage of him: Iago uses Othello’s belief that all men are good and honest until proven otherwise (“[Othello] thinks men honest that but seem to be so,” – Iago), by becoming Othello’s most trusted friend.
He then uses this trust to unearth Othello’s insecurity, by twisting the intentions of various conversations and making Othello think something was going on between Cassio and Desdemona. Iago then takes advantage of Othello’s newfound insecurity and his passion for Desdemona, by providing visual “evidence” in the form of the handkerchief, further convincing Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity.
Finally, Iago uses this jealousy, and Othello’s passion for Desdemona, by suggesting that he kills her, which he eventually does. After doing so, Othello’s guilt, combined with his passion for Desdemona, and his low self-esteem, causes him to take his own life.
Iago’s use of language is complicated. He slips between prose and verse, adapting his style to suit his different audiences and purposes. In his soliloquies, we see that Iago’s natural way of talking is blunt and persuasive, which is how he speaks to Roderigo, as in Act 1 Scene 1: “Despise me if I do not. Three great ones of the city in personal suit to make me his lieutenant … but he, as loving his own pride and purposes, Evades them with a bombast circumstance.”
“When talking to Othello, however, Iago uses a posher, more respectful style, as in Act III Scene 3: “Good my lord, pardon me, though I am bound to every act of duty, I am not bound to that all slaves are free to. Utter my thoughts? Why, say they are vile and false…”
Iago’s heavy use of asides and soliloquies also shows his cunning, destructive power; Iago is always lying when he’s talking to other characters, but his soliloquies give the audience a look into his real intentions. They are also a source of dramatic irony and tension.
Othello’s soliloquies occur towards the end of the play, showing that he has now become cunning and destructive, and is lying to the other characters. We can see that he’s no longer confident: in Act 3 he lists reasons Desdemona may have left him:
“Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of the conversation that chamberers have, or for I am declined into the vale of years, –yet that’s not much– She’s gone”. He also begins to use Iago’s base idiom, instead of the idiom he and Desdemona shared.
This shows his lack of judgment, Iago’s increasing authority over him, and the loss of harmony between Othello and Desdemona. In Act 4 Scene 1, just before he has a fit, Othello starts using a far less structured style: “Lie with her, lie on her? We say lie on her, when they belie her! Lie with her, zounds!, that’s fulsome … It is not words that shakes me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is’t possible? Confess? handkerchief! O devil!”
Othello’s use of questions shows his new insecurity, whilst his structured style has stopped, in favor of unstructured, messy lines match his mentality: reason has given way to passion. Right at the end of this speech, Othello’s words don’t make any sense, suggesting the hero’s degradation and degeneration. At the end of Act V, Othello returns to his original idiom, showing that he is no longer jealous to the point of madness.
At the end of Othello, Iago has convinced Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, even though this is complete fiction. Othello smothers Desdemona, killing her. He then realizes what Iago has done and kills himself.
This is his fall from grace and marks the end of his character arch, from being a noble, revered, kind general, to being manipulated into jealousy and murder, to finally being distraught with guilt, and killing himself.
This type of ending meets the typical requirement of a tragic hero. Othello, therefore, meets the first two characteristics of a tragic hero – beginning in glory, and ending in destruction; and the play is clearly a tragedy, as most of the characters die.
But what is the fatal flaw?
Othello is manipulated by Iago, through various faults: his belief that all men who seem honest are, his insecurities, his passion for Desdemona, and his jealousy.
He then kills himself out of guilt, bringing our total of reasons for his downfall, to five. This is not typical of a tragic hero, who usually only has one fatal flaw, however, it may not be possible to highlight only one reason for Othello’s eventual death, and therefore, whether or not Othello meets possibly the most obvious character trait of a tragic hero, is dubious.
In conclusion, Othello is definitely a tragic hero, however, to say that he is “the perfect tragic hero” is, by definition, not the case. Othello is the noble, virtuous protagonist in a tragedy, however, he has no one fatal flaw that led to his downfall, instead of having many that were responsible.
Having said that, it is up to the reader’s interpretation whether or not they believe there was one overriding flaw that caused the tragedies of the play to take place, and therefore, whether a single fatal flaw is identifiable for Othello, making him the ‘perfect tragic hero’.